Urban Planning Well-Being Score aka ‘City Resident – What Are You ACTUALLY Feeling’? 

Our society is becoming increasingly urbanised. It is projected that 74 per cent of the  population of Europe will be living in cities by 2050. Public space, whether indoor or outdoor, plays an important role in our spiritual well-being and can facilitate socialisation and support a feeling of security. Ideally, people should be at the heart of urban well-being. Cities and urban living environments should support human health. If a person feels unwell in his or her environment, either consciously or unconsciously, then this has a direct impact on his or her mental and, in the long term, physical health. 

 

The living environment has certain characteristics that can be associated with negative or positive health, such as the effects of noise and vibration, landscaping and greenery, as well as the size of the living environment-residential area or the possibility of choosing between different routes of movement. At the same time, different users may interpret a similar physical space differently, with the same user experiencing it differently on different days or times of the year. There are also differences in the environmental perception of subjects, which depends on their age, environmental attitudes, gender, and disposition. The fact that the daily life of urban residents is often hurried and buried under a flood of information from different sources adds complexity. The mind is often distracted and there is a lack of awareness regarding what urban dwellers actually feel in the surrounding living environment and what impact it has on them. 

How does one gather objective feedback in such a situation, which can then be take into account in urban planning? For example, to assess, in as evidence-based a manner as possible, how city residents feel in the city’s main square, in the courtyard of a residential area, or in a park? 

Throughout the history of urban planning, planners have tried to shape the living environment based on the well-being of residents, while increasing their level of involvement in the process. The methods for doing this have become increasingly accurate over time, and we now know a great deal more about how the urban space affects human health. However, in practice, cities are often faced with complex spatial planning choices, in the resolution of which the engineering expertise of urban space planners and builders can currently be objectively taken into account, but it is either very difficult or no one knows how to measure the potential impact on the well-being of city residents in these places. In addition, the complexity and politicisation of decision-making processes remains a problem, where decisions are made based on opinions in place of knowledge-based decisions, and residents, once again, have little confidence in politicians and knowledge about how and why certain spatial decisions are made. Inputs are usually collected from people through the use of questionnaires or round-tables; however, their results have often failed to provide new insights into planning. Round-tables are mostly attended by a certain group of active people, who fail to reflect a cross section of the city’s inhabitants, but also because people are often unable to consciously perceive their feelings and clearly imagine the urban space that is still in the planning stage. 

One step closer towards more objective urban planning is offered by the FinEst Centre for Smart Cities ‘Urban Planning Well-Being Score for Good Quality Living Environment’ pilot project. The Well-Being Score is an innovative system that initially maps the spatial characteristics of the selected urban space and the psychological and physiological reaction of local residents in the chosen location. Apart from the analysis of the data, an attempt is made to determine why, at first glance, locals perceive public space with similar spatial characteristics differently, and why some places are more popular than others. 

In its current form, the Well-Being Score includes five levels: the natural environment layer, which calculates the proportion of positive landscape elements (e.g. trees, patches of grass and flower beds) and the proportion of negative elements, such as polluting areas and large asphalt covered areas; a constructed environmental layer that assesses street network connectivity, accessibility and time of use of certain locations; a layer of activities that assess the diversity of public amenities and services in the area (playgrounds, sports facilities, etc.) and their proximity to city residents; a psychological layer that assesses the levels of positive and negative emotions of residents in selected locations in the city space, attachment and possibility of mental recovery; and a physiological layer that measures human exposure to spatially determined stress factors based on real-time recorded physiological signals. 

 

The collection of spatial data utilises existing databases and information sources (for example, the Land Board map application). In addition, the cameras located in the urban space are used to perform a mobility analysis. The psychological layer is created by engaging residents on the basis of a psychological questionnaire created especially for this purpose. Physiological signals are collected from residents via sensors that monitor heart activity and respiration, skin temperature and moisture levels, pulse waves in blood vessels and electrical signals from the brain. 

The ‘Urban Planning Well-Being Score for Good Quality Living Environment’ pilot project started in January 2022. In February, researchers from the FinEst Centre for Smart Cities in Narva selected specific sites for further study, i.e. measuring the well-being  of Narva citizens. In the spring, from 18 April – 12 May 2022, a small-scale survey was conducted in Narva, where the physiological and psychological reactions of 28 urban residents were measured at four points in the public urban space – Peter’s Square, the Joaorg district, the Pähklimäe Street pedestrian area, and the area between buildings on Dauman Street. 

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The experience of the team that carried out the physiological and psychological measurements in the urban space showed that conducting what appeared at first glance to be a rather simple survey proved to be quite complicated, both in terms of finding subjects and conducting the survey. A number of preconditions had to fall in place in order to successfully carry out the measurements on the subjects: the city resident had to appear in the right place at the agreed upon time, the weather conditions had to be suitable for conducting the survey, there were no obstacles when moving about in the city and at the study site, and the equipment had to function flawlessly. Although the 3.5 hour survey was essentially driving from one measuring point in the city to another, observing on the spot, and moving from line to line in the survey protocol, it was quite stressful for those who were conducting the study, and by the end of the evening it had become both emotionally and physically tiring. It was the experience of the members of the survey team that the people being surveyed are the best guides to guide you through congestion in the city, standing up for more than 3 hours in a row is not so easy, and that it is often the individuals being studied who give you the energy you need to survive the long days. Interestingly, it also turned out that filling out long questionnaires is much more burdensome than carrying a large number of electrodes attached to one’s body. The factor influencing field research the most is the weather, even in an urban space. Although the spring surveys were carried out in a period with mostly sunny days, a couple of surveys had to be cancelled due to rain, and if it happened that the air temperature was low, then it was necessary to work hard to keep the individual being investigated warm as well. If you were to also add logistics along the route Tallinn-Narva-Tallinn, which included catching the last bus-train and planning what time once must reach the train in order to get a seat, it was unquestionably an experience that will be remembered for a lifetime. 

 

In terms of spatial analysis, one of the challenges in the small-scale survey was the selection of suitable places and perspectives for measurement. It was for this purpose that the preferences of the City of Narva were collected and the primary landscape analysis of the City of Narva was carried out, which helped to compare the quality of the selected sites. Only public squares and green areas were selected for the survey, two of which are of city-wide significance, with the remaining six being of regional importance. From the point of view of spatial analysis, it was important to see different spatial elements and so-called everyday urban life at the measurement site. However, these conditions may not have been the most suitable for obtaining comparable physiological measurement results, which required a controlled environment. The installation of cameras at selected measurement sites, which count different types of movement and speeds, presented an additional challenge. It turned out that experience and the ability to use cameras has been limited, not in terms of exploring city streets, but specifically the public space and green areas, and the Well-Being Score pilot project is one of the first to also encourage others to use the latest AI technologies more broadly than simply measuring traffic. Lastly, from the perspective of spatial analysis, the biggest challenge has been finding ways to delineate the viewing sectors and measurement areas to allow for a data-driven analysis. While those being measured are looking at a specific view, they are still aware of the whole area and often of its associations with the rest of the city. At the same time, the spatial analysis estimate must also express the values of a given place more broadly than in just one sector, since the transformation of the site generally changes the entire area, not just one section. It has therefore been important to design the methodology of spatial analysis in such a way that a balance could be found between the size of the selected area and the spatial data based analysis capabilities without being excessively vague or too narrow. 

 

The small-scale survey and the selection of locations taught us a lot about interdisciplinary collaboration. The latter, of course, is also the fundamental thing that is often lacking in urban planning processes. In the course of the project’s activities so far, it is quite positive to note that the Narva City Government is a fantastic cooperation partner and, as a result of the joint effort made by the entire project team, the planned volume of recordings were successfully made. Although the analysis of the results is currently ongoing, based on the results of physiological measurements, it is worth noting that it is possible to statistically distinguish between different urban space measurement points in terms of stress levels – one location in the city produces a higher than average stress reaction among people than another. Also, on the basis of the psychological questionnaire, it is possible to distinguish between sites. The sites are best distinguished by the feeling of affection that people have for the site and the perceived potential for recovery. 

 

In September 2022, a more extensive survey is underway. In which the physiological and psychological reactions of the inhabitants of Narva are being measured in eight locations in the public space. A total of 40 inhabitants from different age groups will be included in the measurements. The City of Narva wanted to measure the well-being of its residents in different residential areas in order to finalise the comprehensive plan for Narva and make specific proposals for development in those residential areas based on the results of the survey. 

 

As of June 2023, the FinEst Centre for Smart Cities plans to offer the Urban Planning Well-Being Score service to other Estonian cities as well. We are also looking for other markets, where cities see a need for the Well-Being Score service. The Well-Being Score can be applied either in the process of compiling the general plan of a city – in order to measure in practice how people feel about themselves in specific locations in a single city – or when planning specific public spaces and measuring the well-being of people in those locations before and after development works. 

 

The FinEst Centre for Smart Cities currently has 6 pilot projects under way, which will deliver results by the summer of next year: A Conceptual Ecosystem Solution to Transport System Management, Tallinn-Helsinki Dynamic Green Information Model, Real-Time Building Performance Audit, Reducing Energy Supply Requirements Using Microgrids and Energy Storage, Renovation Strategy Tool and the Urban Planning Well-Being Score for Good Quality Living Environment. See more: https://taltech.ee/en/finest-centre-for-smart-cities. So far, the pilot ideas have been selected through two idea rounds, with the next two rounds set to take place between September 2023 and February 2025. Read more: https://www.finestcentre.eu/pilotingprogrammes. The implementation of the pilot projects is financed by the project ‘Centre of Excellence for Smart Cities’, funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Estonian Ministry of Research and Education. 

 

Authors: Ivo Fridolin, Kristjan Pilt, Maie Bachmann, Kristi Grišakov, Külle Tärnov, and Silver Sternfeldt